Cookies to cocktails, row houses to restaurants, Harlem makes a visitor feel and taste its forward movement

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By Jessica Allen
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2011

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The cookie taxed the imagination.

Would it be cooked through? And how many calories are in a fist-sized hunk of dark chocolate speckled with peanut butter chips anyway?

Yes, to the first question. A slight crisp on the outside yields an ever-so-gooey center. As for the second, no matter. Hefting the dense ounces to our lips practically counts as exercise.

We’re munching and moaning on a bench outside of Levain Bakery, the new uptown outpost of a longtime Upper West Side favorite. My husband, Garrett, and I have been to Harlem many times, sampling its art (exhibitions at the Studio Museum) and food (slabs of red velvet at Make My Cake). Recently, though, we spent two full days exploring and, of course, eating.

Perhaps no other area in New York so eagerly honors its history as Harlem. Streets have been renamed for Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. North of the bakery, a 10-foot-tall, 2-ton statue of Harriet Tubman leans forward, like the prow of a ship about to sail into the green ocean of Central Park.

Despite the interest in what came before, these days Harlem seems utterly future-oriented. Over the past few years, several restaurants, bars, and even a hotel, the first in four decades, have opened on or near Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Attuned to marketing opportunities, some real estate agents champion “SoHa,’’ or South Harlem, as the latest “it’’ location. We wanted to see how the new was getting on with the old.

The previous night, we had sampled the locally brewed Sugar Hill Golden Ale at one of Bier International’s communal tables, then stopped into a speakeasy called 67 Orange Street. Opened in late 2008, it is named for the address of a black-owned, 19th-century bar.

Dressed in suspenders and soft, saggy denim, our bartender would have fit right into the original, sartorially speaking. Biceps undulating, he shook up a Corpse Reviver #2, which we ordered for the moniker, a mix of gin, lemon juice, tequila, Lillet Blanc, and absinthe. The Upper Manhattan, which we ordered as a nod to geography and because we wanted the brandy-soaked cherry, had rye, bitters, and vermouth. Each was eye-poppingly strong.

Our choices disappointed the woman next to us. “You should have had a Cleopatra’s Lust,’’ she said, laughing. As her husband, an off-Broadway playwright, looked over the bartender’s headshot and asked about his experience on “Law & Order,’’ she got to talking.

“I’m from Brooklyn,’’ she said. “But walking around this neighborhood is like walking around the world.’’

On a map, Harlem cuts a wide swath: from 96th Street on the east side and Central Park North on the west, curving around Columbia University’s campus, and extending north to 155th Street. Certainly its reputation goes far beyond those boundaries. And it attracts people from everywhere.

Along 125th Street, predominantly African vendors sell shea butter, incense, and T-shirts that read “I [heart] Harlem.’’ Boomboxes blast reggae and soul, as if iPods never happened. Latin American women shave flavored ice into Dixie cups or carve fresh mangoes to look like pinecones. European tourists pose in front of the famed Apollo Theater.

This main thoroughfare has outposts of Applebee’s and The Body Shop, in addition to the offices into which former President Bill Clinton moved in 2001 (earlier this year he announced that he is decamping for the Financial District). In the 1990s and early 2000s, such arrivals helped signify an end to the blight of previous decades and the beginning of gentrification, which continues fueled by rising real estate prices and changing demographics.

Nowhere is that better exemplified than at Red Rooster Harlem, a supremely popular restaurant serving global comfort food. So hot, in fact, that a $30,800-a-plate fund-raiser for President Obama was held here in March, three months after the place opened.

During our early dinner, suited professionals sip gin and juice, dashed with bitters and marmalade, at the bar; families stop in for early appetizers, wedging strollers next to high-top tables; and diners young, old, and multiracial nosh on the signature fried yard bird (chicken, in the slang of old Harlem), marinated in a blend of coconut and buttermilk, served with hot sauce and its own shaker of spices.

Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopia-born, Sweden-raised, “Top Chef Masters’’ season two-winning chef-owner, draws inspiration from his own history as well as that of the neighborhood where he now lives. Créole red grits are a cheesy mess of shrimp, crab, chorizo, and grains, while crispy chunks of injera and sour cherries liven a typical bar snack of mixed nuts. Not surprisingly, to find an appropriate appellation for his endeavor, Samuelsson looked backward: The original Red Rooster was a chi-chi nightery nearby.

The next day, we breakfast at Amy Ruth’s, a soul food institution, and climb to the top of Marcus Garvey Park. Looking out, Garrett and I try to imagine what the original inhabitants saw. In 1658, Dutch settlers christened the area Nieuw Haarlem. Gradually fields gave way to construction sites; the gleaming towers and cranes we spy demonstrate that trend’s persistence.

Side streets feel more human. Several times we are told to “have a blessed day’’ as we wander around admiring the gorgeous row houses and brownstones, some of which belonged to the burgeoning black middle class of the 1920s and ’30s, an era known as the Harlem Renaissance. So-called Strivers’ Row, with its landmark brick buildings and wrought iron accents, still has signs admonishing visitors to “Walk Your Horses.’’

Following the crowds, we stop at Jacob’s Restaurant for lunch. Although it opened in 2009, the unpretentious buffet feels as if it’s been around forever. Kids elbow their way onto communal tables to make signs for an antiviolence rally while flat-screen televisions play a loop of footage from a concert in South Africa.

We select a mélange of Caribbean, West African, and Southern flavors: tender ribs, potato salad, jerk chicken. Beneath framed drawings of Sojourner Truth and Nelson Mandela, we devour the cornbread, outlined in a caramelized crust. Only a super long line stops us from getting seconds.

Bellies full, we decide to feed our brains. At Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe (“A SKU for Every Hue’’ goes its tagline), we page through Jonathan Gill’s just published “Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America.’’ The past is always present, and the only constant is change. Hanging out here shows the truth of both claims.

Regardless of where we walk or what we eat, our weekend can only conclude with one activity: jazz. Harlem offers plenty of places to hear live music, from the historic Lenox Lounge to the hipper Shrine. We want something a little more intimate, a little less frequently mentioned in guidebooks, so we head to American Legion Post 398.

The basement space has no cover charge or drink minimum. No dress code, no carefully crafted libations. Other than signing the guestbook, there’s no requirement to watch the show, but the audience tends to buy food or a drink. Garrett opts for fried chicken; I choose the fried whitefish, along with collard greens and red rice. All arrives on Styrofoam plates.

Sundays, Seleno Clarke plays his 350-pound Hammond B3 organ with some members of his Harlem Groove Band and anyone else who cares to jam, on a stage that’s about 4 inches off the floor. Except for us, everyone knows one another.

Crewcut, in a blue Oxford, saxophonist Peter Valera takes a deep breath, shuts his eyes, and blows. The mild-mannered appearance slips away. At one point, he follows a waitress around, then serenades her from his knees as she tries to take orders. Later, a patron will lean across the cymbals to kiss drummer Sean Cameron goodbye. He’ll keep playing.

Sliding an arm around my shoulders, our waitress asks whether we would like some rum cake. I shake my head. Next time.

“OK, y’all, what we doing . . . it’s how you feel,’’ Clarke booms, before beginning another song.

We feel great.

Jessica Allen can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay
Aloft Harlem
2296 Frederick Douglass Blvd.
This minimalist Starwood property is Harlem’s first new hotel in 40 years. Queens and kings from $260 per night.
Where to eat and drink
Amy Ruth’s
113 West 116th St.
Try the Reverend Al Sharpton at this beloved soul food restaurant: a waffle topped with smothered or fried chicken, made juicier by a big pour of maple syrup. Waffles $7.25-$15.25.
Bier International
2099 Frederick Douglass Blvd.
A cash-only Biergarten, which opened in 2010. Pints and bottles $6-$14.
Jacob’s Restaurant
373 Lenox Ave.
One hot buffet, one cold buffet, no frills and delicious. $4.99-$5.99 per pound.
Levain Bakery
2167 Fredrick Douglass Blvd.
Best known for its mammoth cookies, including chocolate chip walnut and dark chocolate peanut butter chip. Cookies $4.
Red Rooster
310 Lenox Ave.
Reservations are recommended for Harlem’s most happening restaurant, serving global comfort food. $14-$33.
67 Orange Street
2082 Frederick Douglass Blvd.
This speakeasy-style bar has a casual vibe and artisanal drinks. Cocktails $13-$16.
What to do
American Legion Post 398
248 West 132d St.
Seleno Clarke and his band play every Sunday evening starting around 7.
Hue-Man Bookstore and Cafe
2319 Frederick Douglass Blvd.
One of the largest African-American bookstores in the United States.
Marcus Garvey Park
East 120th to 124th streets, between Madison Avenue and Mount Morris Park West
An outdoor pool, two playgrounds, plenty of benches, an amphitheater, and an 1857 cast-iron fire watchtower make this park worth a stop.
Strivers’ Row
West 138th and 139th streets, between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass boulevards
Two streets full of 19th-century buildings, some designed by McKim, Mead & White.